June 5, 2011

Some Myths Die, But Myth Never Dies

The Onion- America's finest (and most humorous fictional) news source recently published an article entitled "Church Canceled Due To Lack of God." As funny as the story was, it got me thinking about the collapse of modern organized and revealed religions in the west, and the need for a mythical life in us, despite the failure of certain myths and the organizations that calcified them to death.

I think that churches are emptying not because "god" isn't real, but because "god" isn't what people have been taught to think it is. They are falling apart on the weight of their myths- the particular myths embraced by Christianity are heavy and clunky and can't hold up to modern scrutiny. Of course, I think myths are generated in every era- a "myth" here being a story we tell ourselves to explain things. Atheists particularly hate the word "myth" because they think it just means "made up and fake", but as any student of actual mythology (or analytical psychology) will tell you, "myth" has more functions than just empty explanations, and they are more than just stories told in the pre-scientific world.

So, for me, "myth" almost never means "fake", however, SOME myths have outlived their usefulness- assuming they ever had any- and crashed and burned in the modern world. The myths of Christianity are perfect examples. The sad thing is this- ancient people were not just ignorant primitives. The human psyche has not changed that much in 100,000 years. The contents of our psyches, the focus of certain aspects of the psyche- those things have changed. But the innate intelligence, adaptability, and perceptiveness of humanity has remained constant.

New bodies of knowledge have been created, but the psyche of man has remained the same- and the psyche has a myth-creating function, because the psyche is itself a mythical force, a story-generating power that is part of the larger story of "mankind".
I think ancient people understood that greater powers were part of our world, and part of us. There is nothing "out there" that isn't "in here"- this universe is a whole, not shattered, sundered parts. It is one great event, and our psyches are just the medium by which we receive this universe in symbolic form. Our languages, for instance, are another expression of the symbol-creating function and the assignment of meaning to sounds and signs.

The ancient peoples knew that there was a massive, deep, dark depth to everything; they knew that life and intelligence was not limited to just themselves. They expressed these half-conscious insights in many forms, and certain "myths" arose to suit that expression.
The problem is that the mythical function of the psyche has to alter itself to suit the changing of the world and the changing of the psyche, which are two events that might be seen as a singular event with two ranges of intimacy, at least from our perspective. When organized, revealed religions "locked their canons", they froze their myths and refused to evolve.

This is the real reason why they are rightly scorned as false today. Their conception of "god" is meaningless outside of the original culture that manifested it, though the power that was interacting with that culture likely was an autonomous collective of force that really affected those people, and defined their character, as they went on to define its character.
But was a single culture's notion of "god" the absolute? Of course not. It was an event of power- full of the predictable errors and terrors that come with humanity- unique to a certain time and place. The only relevance it has to us now is as a warning, and a guide on the path of avoiding the dangers of absolutizing moments long past. The powers of our Ancestors, and of our time and place are still working in conjunction, this very moment- and waiting for the Seers among us to recognize what power means today.

This universe holds more for us than we can realize at this point, and only the hints that come in non-intellectual dreams, visions, and intuitions still remain- in that dim way- to alert us to the fact of the mysterious vastness that exists. It's fashionable these days to worship at the feet of the Gods of Rationality- the pantheon led by Sagan and his fellows- and to dismiss the non-rational and the non-intellectual as so much background noise, but I think this is just as big an imbalance as existed when we killed people like Sagan, and floated in defiance of the intellectual.

I side with Jung in his insistence that rationalism and doctrinairism are the diseases of our time. His full and superb quote (from "Memories, Dreams, and Reflections") reads:

"Critical rationalism has apparently eliminated, along with so many other mythic conceptions, the idea of life after death. This could only have happened because nowadays most people identify themselves almost exclusively with their consciousness, and imagine that they are only what they know about themselves. Yet anyone with even a smattering of psychology can see how limited this knowledge is. Rationalism and doctrinairism are the diseases of our time; they pretend to have all the answers. But a great deal will yet be discovered which our present limited view would have ruled out as impossible."

He goes on to say:

"We cannot visualize another world ruled by quite other laws, the reason being that we live in a specific world which has helped to shape our minds and establish our basic psychic conditions. We are strictly limited by our innate structure and therefore bound by our whole being and thinking to this world of ours. Mythic man, to be sure, demands a "going beyond all that", but scientific man cannot permit this. To the intellect, all my mythologizing is futile speculation. To the emotions, however, it is a healing and valid activity; it gives existence to a glamour which we would not like to do without. Nor is there any good reason why we should."

On the question of the myths of life beyond what we call "death", the Master Jung waxes even more powerfully. He says

"...Naturally, such reasoning does not apply to everyone. There are people who feel no craving for immortality, and who shudder at the thought of sitting on a cloud and playing the harp for ten thousand years! There are also quite a few who have been so buffeted by life, or feel such disgust for their own existence, that they far prefer absolute cessation to continuance. But in the majority of cases the question of immortality is so urgent, so immediate, and also so ineradicable that we must make an effort to form some sort of view about it. But how?

My hypothesis is that we can do so with the aid of hints sent to us from the unconscious- in dreams, for example. Usually we dismiss these hints because we are convinced that the question is not susceptible to answer. In response to this understandable skepticism, I suggest the following considerations. If there is something we cannot know, we must necessarily abandon it as an intellectual problem. For example, I do not know for what reason the universe has come into being, and shall never know. Therefore I must drop this question as a scientific or intellectual problem. But if an idea about it is offered to me- in dreams or in mythic traditions- I ought to take note of it. I even out to build up a conception on the basis of such hints, even though it will forever remain a hypothesis which I know cannot be proved.

A man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it- even if he must confess his failure. Not to have done so is a vital loss. For the question that is posed to him is the age-old heritage of humanity: an archetype, rich in secret life, which seeks to add itself to our own individual life in order to make it whole. Reason sets the boundaries far too narrowly for us, and would have us accept only the known- and that too with limitations- and live within a known framework, just as if we were sure how far life actually extends. As a matter of fact, day after day we life far beyond the bounds of our consciousness; without our knowledge, the life of the unconscious is also going on within us.

The more the critical reason dominates, the more impoverished life becomes; but the more of the unconscious, and the more of myth we are capable of making conscious, the more of life we integrate. Overvalued reason has this in common with political absolutism: under its dominion, the individual is pauperized."

1 comment:

  1. I love reading your thoughts, Robin. Just wish I didn't have to wait so long in between them. Thanks for giving me much food for thought.